TAMPA, Fla — It was an improbable rise from humble beginnings on dirt roads in Tampa to the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, but Bob Martinez, former Tampa mayor and Florida’s first Hispanic governor never let those doubters get in his way.
“The reasons they would give why it was a dream that can't be fulfilled is that your last name is Martinez. And no one with a Spanish name has ever won an election statewide in Florida,” says Martinez.
“My grandmother who ended up living to 103, she saw it all, from mayor to governor to Drug Czar, she was a Spaniard, came from Spain about 1910. And you know, she was extremely proud that her grandson had been able to achieve those things,” Martinez added.
Martinez’s life is like a glossary of modern political buzzwords.
Born in raised in Tampa at the height of the Great Depression, he attended Jefferson High School where he was a star baseball player. After college, he taught classes and went on to become the leader of a local teacher’s union, after he took ownership of Café Sevilla, a family restaurant in Tampa.
It’s a call he got at Café Sevilla from then-Governor Reubin Askew that put him on the path to public office.
“He said, Bobby, I need for you to sit in the Southwest Florida Water Management District Board," Martinez said.
After a few years on the board, he decided to take a shot at the mayor’s office, going on to win the nonpartisan election in 1979. During his tenure, he helped shape downtown and expand the city through New Tampa, all while lowering property taxes.
“I can see what I did you know, the performing arts center, that convention center, the [Tampa] zoo, the refuse to energy plant…the beautiful, historic city hall building. So living here all this time and getting to do all those things, it's very special,” says Martinez.
In the ‘80s, the registered Democrat made a seismic shift to become a Republican, though Martinez contends he ideologically fell in line with the Republican Party for the most part. Though Bob was still courted by some heavy hitters at the time to seek the governor’s office as a member of the GOP, including at a famous Oval Office meeting with late president Ronald Reagan.
“He comes over, ‘Bobby, I'm Ronnie,’ and he sticks out his hand,” Martinez recalled.
“I really would like for you to change parties,” he added.
“So I said, 'Mr. President that's a major decision to make and I don't make major decisions without my wife,'” Martinez replied.
It’s his marriage to Mary Jane that he says guided many of his decisions and kept him grounded. During his one term as governor, where he's most proud of helping initiate the bipartisan Florida 2000 program (now known as Florida Forever), the country’s largest conservation land acquisition program, and at the same Tampa home they’ve now shared for over half a century.
Martinez served just one term in Tallahassee. He believes the implementation of a service tax that was passed before he took office, ultimately led to his unsuccessful reelection campaign.
Following his term as governor, President George H.W. Bush appointed Bob Martinez as the nation's Drug Czar.
"Florida had had a long battle dealing with drugs, not only with apprehension but with treatment with education. And so we're one of the more experienced states dealing with the terrible problem of drugs. So when I didn't get reelected, he quickly called," Martinez explained.
After some time in D.C., Bob and Mary Jane made the decision to leave public life, moving back to their home in Tampa full time and serving on boards in the local community. Even now in his late '80s, Bob still heads to his downtown Tampa office at Holland & Knight where he works as a senior policy advisor.
“We are just dedicated to doing something. And it worked out for us, you know, and so, I have no do-overs. You know, it's been a good life,” Martinez added.